Photography by Katie O'Neill
Neal Keeling is the Chief Reporter at the Manchester Evening News (MEN). He has been reporting and breaking some of the biggest news stories across Manchester and Salford for the last 40 years. Neal's many awards include: North West Reporter of the Year in 2008, 2012 and 2018; and North West Writer of the Year in 2019. In 2014 at the National Society of Editors Awards he was Highly Commended for the Greengate Memorial campaign.
Neal Keeling - Manchester Evening News, Chief Reporter
I’m incredibly grateful to Manchester and Salford… they gave me a job when I couldn’t get a job in the West Midlands, they gave me a career, I’ve got three Manc kids who all speak like Liam Gallagher who I am immensely proud of, I have been saved from the football wilderness… my family all support Man City and The Christie basically saved my life twice… I’m so lucky to be an adopted Manc.
Some of Neal's most memorable stories:
Todd: The official verdict - The death of Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, Michael Todd, found below the summit of Snowdon in 2008.
Paul Massey: Man dubbed Salford's 'Mr Big' - The murder of Paul Massey, July 2015 and the linked shooting of a mother and son on their doorstep in October 2015 - Shooting of seven-year-old boy crosses line of gang warfare and must be a turning point
Moors murder victim Pauline Reade is being laid to rest in Gorton Cemetery this morning - for a second time - Body parts of Moors Murder victim, Pauline Reade kept by police for three decades - November 2018.
New £44m RHS national garden to bring in one MILLION tourists to Greater Manchester - Breaking the news in 2017 that the RHS were to open their fifth national garden in Worsley.
Firefighters are infuriated after they were stopped from helping bomb victims at Manchester Arena - The Manchester Arena terror attack May 2017.
The shadow over a small town: Who killed Lisa Hession, and why? - Over the years many articles on unsolved "Cold Case" murder cases - including videos and in depth research and reporting on the cases of Lisa Hession, strangled aged, 14, in Leigh, in December 1984 - the first murder Neal covered and one he says has haunted him all of his career.
THE SHOOT: Chimney Pot Park, Langworthy, Salford
The streets where Neal cut his teeth & learned his trade as a journalist
Q & A with Neal Keeling
Q: Where were you born and raised?
A: I was born in Walsall, West Midlands in 1959 and that’s where I was raised and I’ve never lost the accent. I was educated there until I was 18, then I went to Leeds Polytechnic to do a degree in social administration - what you would call social sciences today. Even then I knew I wanted to be a journalist, so it was a useful grounding for me.
Q: What was your first experience in journalism?
A: When I was doing my degree in Leeds, we had to get a placement and I managed to get one with the Sandwell Evening Mail, I had three weeks there and that convinced me this was what I wanted to do. I then started to write letters and wrote to 58 newspapers all over the country and to cut a long story short… I got 58 rejections. At this point I was living with my mum and sister and realised I needed to contribute to the household income, so I worked in a summer job at a factory in Walsall, it made the seats for Massey Ferguson tractors, it was a dirty, filthy, grubby job. I then went on to work in a warehouse in Walsall packing football boots for Patrick UK. At that point a permanent job became available, I spoke to my dad and said, “The journalism dream is over, I’ve got a job at the factory, I start next month”. A few days later a package arrived in the post, it was three books that my dad had sent me which included a book written by the infamous former Sunday Times Editor and Manchester Evening News Sub Editor Harold Evans, on the skills you need to be a journalist. There was a little note with it from my dad saying, 'Don’t give up!' So, I didn’t give up and I got a lucky break in 1981 when my then girlfriend and now wife, through a journalist friend of hers, got me an interview at the Bury Times which led to a job on the Radcliffe Times. I had a lucky break and was blessed with the then only women editor in the country Yvonne Evans, who basically moulded my career. I was an idealistic, clueless dreamer and within days of starting at the Radcliffe Times she was sending me up Stand Lane to do a review of a local church performance of Oklahoma!
Neal ambushes Harold Wilson for the Radcliffe Times during the 1983 General Election
Q: How did your move to the evening newspaper titles come about?
A: The Radcliffe Times allowed you to sell your best stories to the Bolton Evening News and Manchester Evening News - selling your stories to the big boys was a nice little earner. But more importantly the two big papers got to know your name. Subsequently I applied for and got a job on the Bolton Evening News. I joined in 1984 as a general reporter and then crime reporter. Then in 1987, after a lot of banging on the doors, I joined the Manchester Evening News. My first role was a city centre based general reporter and it was like a baptism of fire to be honest. It was a massive move up from Bolton to Manchester.
Q: At what point did your association with Salford begin?
A: A career changing moment happened a year later when the Salford City based reporter left. It was a great opportunity for me, but it was tough, to go to Salford to basically start in your own district office on your own. In those days the district reporter was responsible for crime, health, education, human interest stories… the whole gambit. It was a brilliant way of reporting, for example in those days Salford had four different police stations and every week I would walk into all four and I would have a chat with the uniformed boss and I would have a chat with CID and that’s how I got my stories. There was no looking at my emails seeing what GMP were issuing, it was real human contact and you had to build bridges of trust with police officers, councillors, housing associations, residents’ group. It’s a different way to do the job, but I believe it’s still the best way. It probably took me a year to get on my feet, this was Salford, a tough city… you go on a death knock in the middle of an Ordsall estate and it was pretty nerve racking… but in the end it’s what kind of made me because it’s where I found my mettle. If you’re going into Langworthy, Ordsall, Seedley, Pendleton, they’re tough areas, yet… most times people engaged with me, people talked to me and to this day I’m not sure if people gave me their sympathy vote or it was the knack you develop of being authentic and having empathy. Whether it’s a family tragedy or a planning dust up about building on playing fields, you have got to show that you're genuinely interested and not some mercenary who's just there to get a good story. When you’re a district reporter the stories start to matter to you. Salford became my manor and I would get very pissed off if some big-shot from the city centre office came into my patch, got a story and then buggered off. My first district office was a 10-foot by 4-foot box which was stuck on the side of the MEN distribution depot in Eccles. It was like being in a Strangeways cell, there was no natural light… there was a phone, a desk and that was it… its no wonder I got out and about!
Salford Precinct in the 1980s (Photo - UoS)
Q: Can you explain your close affinity with Salford and its people?
A: Salford made the journalist of me, even though ironically my reporting has fuelled its reputation as wild, rough and tough. I’ve covered shootings, murders, all kinds of mayhem, but there’s another side to the city. And it gave me immense joy to report on that other side. In the end there was so much bad stuff going on it actually motivated me to find the good stuff to address the balance. A story I remember distinctly involved a little two-year-old lad. He was being looked after by his grandad and his dad in a property next to a dual carriageway that runs through Salford. The little lad slipped out of the backdoor onto the dual carriageway and was killed by a truck. The grandad and the dad were in bits… and yet they spoke to me. I’m feeling tingles now. I think why would you entertain speaking to me? Sometimes I can’t explain why people do, but they do… and this is what gave me this attachment to Salford.
There is one story I’m particularly proud of. in 2013 I seized on an opportunity to campaign for something important when someone tipped me off that a memorial to 150 or so lads from the Greengate part of Salford who were killed in the First World War, lay neglected in the corner of a council depot yard. It had been removed from a wall of a hospital dispensary during the building of Trinity Way. The memorial for 40 years had been shifted here and there, until eventually it had been left broken and shattered in a corner of a council depot. I managed to get a photo of it and we published a double page spread in the MEN shaming the council. The great niece of two of the lads whose names were on the memorial got in touch with me and for about a year I campaigned to get a replacement. I managed to get £13,000 out of Fred Done the bookie, I got the Coop to donate a granite replacement, I got an engineering company from Salford to do the work for nothing and I kicked town hall arses, with the help of a maverick councillor to cut through the red tape and find a location to put it. It now stands at the junction of Blackfriars St and Trinity Way and was unveiled on Armistice Day 2015.
Unveiling of the Greengate War Memorial - 2015
Q: When did you make the move back to the city centre newsroom?
A: I was in my own Salford office from 1988 to 2006 and after the Evening News moved from Deansgate to the new office in Spinningfields, they needed to rejig the staff, so I got called into the main office. So from 2006 I was a city centre reporter with a responsibility for crime across Greater Manchester and then in 2010 I became Chief Reporter which I have been ever since. My remit can be anything and everything.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your battles with cancer?
A: The first time was in March 2012 I started to feel acute fatigue, by April I was so wiped out I went to my GP and he sent me for a scan and it revealed a tumour around my left kidney. I had to have the kidney removed and then they found that the cancer had spread to my neck, my hip and my lungs. The Christie offered me a robust drug called Interleukin and they said that there was a 1 in 4 chance that I would live… and I lived. The treatment was worse than the cancer, but it worked and I went into remission.
Until September 2016 when my 3 monthly check showed it had come back in my right kidney I underwent a radical procedure to cut half my kidney away. I spent six days in a high dependency unit hanging on. It was a slow recovery and I went back to work again in early 2017.
Q: What advice would you give to any young person wanting to break into journalism today?
A: This might sound a bit controversial, because the path into journalism now is not like the one I followed, but I still think that if you want to work in journalism, by all means do your journalism degree because that’s what’s on offer now, but… join a weekly paper, learn your craft and then an evening paper, then a big regional and if you want to go on to the nationals, do so. Working on a weekly is an apprenticeship and shouldn’t be frowned upon. It’s astonishing to me that some young journalists come straight into the Manchester Evening News and have never worked anywhere else. There is nothing wrong with that but I would still say work on a weekly, learn your trade and move up.
Q: What would you say is the principal role of a newspaper reporter?
A: I’m in a very privileged position because you have a duty to inform people. But it’s also a job that carries responsibility because you have to be fair, you have to be accurate and I think it’s important even in difficult situations to have humanity as well. We’re here to hold people to account. It's a reporter’s duty to dig and find out what’s going on and to inform the public.
Q: How do you now look back on your career in the newspaper industry?
A: I’ve greatly enjoyed what I do and I’ve had a fantastic career, I only wanted to play for one team… and that was the Manchester Evening News. I’m not sure whether it’s astonishing loyalty or a breath-taking lack of ambition but I’ve stayed at the MEN since 1987 because I think it’s a great paper and I still believe in it. I know we still get people knocking us, but when a big story breaks - for example the Manchester Arena bombing - there’s nobody better in the game than us to cover it in-depth, fairly and ask questions of why things have occurred. From a personal point of view however, I have to admit my years on the Manchester Evening News have become an addiction to news... with hindsight the paper has come first when it should have been the family. That’s the price you pay when you want to make your mark and you're driven to get news.
Thank you Neal for sharing your story.
MEN newsroom in the 1980s - typewriters, fags & rotary dial phones (Photo - Martin O'Neill)
Student reflection: Katie O'Neill
We met Neal on the steps at Langworthy Park, Salford which gave us a commanding view overlooking the terraced houses of Chimney Pot Park, now a desirable Urban Splash redevelopment, but for many decades a tough and neglected area of the city. Neal explained it was here back in the 80s and 90s where he learned his skills as a reporter.
I began by photographing Neal against the dramatic backdrop of the rows of red brick houses and then moved down into the streets which were apparently used in the original Coronation Street opening credits. It was a bright but bitterly cold Spring morning, so I had to make best use of any shade and tried to avoid any harsh direct sunlight. Neal was really easy to work with and very obliging with my suggested poses. We would pause as Neal retold many of the fascinating stories he had worked on in his time as a Salford reporter. We moved around the streets making good use of the red brick houses which stretched into the distance. These shots, many of which I turned to black and white really capture Neal in his natural working environment and hopefully help to tell the story of his dedication to the cities of Manchester and Salford through his reporting.
Neal is a real unsung hero… a worthy Greater Mancunian.